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The tangle of egos behind central Africa's wars

Why Rwandan and Ugandan forces fighting to oust Congo's leader turned

By Lara SantoroSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 19, 1999



KIGALI, RWANDA

To trace the tensions that have brought Uganda and Rwanda to the brink of war in the central African nation of Congo, formerly Zaire, you'd have to go back to the Sunday morning in 1990, when 1,000 men deserted Uganda's army with enough filched arms and ammunition to invade a neighboring country.

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Which is exactly what they did.

The deserters, led by Paul Kagame, had plotted for years to invade Rwanda. They were Tutsis, members of an ethnic minority that had ruled Rwanda for centuries before losing power to majority Hutus in 1959 and being chased out of the country.

Many settled in Uganda. A generation later, their children were going back, with guns.

That the guns belonged to the Ugandan army was a technicality. Yet this was bound to enrage Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who had welcomed the Tutsis into his National Resistance Army when it was still a struggling guerrilla group seeking to take control of that country.

Mr. Museveni refused, in the years that followed, to acknowledge that he had been tricked or to credit the Rwandans' military achievement.

"This is what it comes down to: an ego problem," said a Rwandan official, after an uneasy truce was declared on Wednesday in the eastern Congolese town of Kisangani, the headquarters of a Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebellion to overthrow Congo President Laurent Kabila.

Nine years have elapsed since that Sunday morning. The deserters now control Rwanda, having overthrown the extremist Hutu regime responsible for the 1994 genocide that killed at least half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

To many Ugandans, however, they are still the gawky adolescents they trained in the bush.

"Why do we even bother with him?" asked a Ugandan army commander recently, referring to James Kabarere, the officer who is running Rwanda's military campaign in Congo. "He's only a second lieutenant." The former low-ranking officer is now a colonel and the force behind Rwanda's consistent military advances in Congo.

Uganda's military campaign, on the other hand, has not been nearly as successful. The Uganda People's Defense Forces (UPDF) joined the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) in Kisangani soon after the town fell to RPA units one year ago. Both sides initially envisioned a unified command overseeing a mix of Rwandans, Ugandans, and Congolese rebels.

"Yes, originally we were going to have a unified command," says Patrick Nyavumba, the Rwandan ground commander in Kisangani. "Then something went wrong."

To this day no Rwandan official has been willing to explain the events that culminated last weekend with Ugandan and Rwandan troops shooting one another. According to residents in Kisangani, however, it began with a radio broadcast.

"The Ugandan commander in Kisangani, James Kazini, announced on the radio that a unified command had been set up, and he was in charge of it," says a Kisangani-based journalist who asked not to be identified. "His second in command would be the Rwandan commander ... and third in command would be Jean Pierre Ondekane," the Congolese rebel commander.

The next day, Mr. Ondekane made his own announcement. "He essentially said Kazini could go to hell," the journalist says.

"You have to keep in mind that Kazini is a general, while [Rwandan commander] Nyamvumba is a colonel," says an aid worker in Kisangani. "Kazini thinks he is owed respect, but he's not getting any from the Rwandans."

In its brief history, the RPA has scored very low in humility. "They think they are the best fighters in Africa and probably the world," says a Western observer in Rwanda's capital, Kigali.

This attitude left little hope that the two sides, who are now fighting separately on different fronts, would patch up their differences.

Further tensions accumulated between the Ugandan and Rwandan forces over the division of Congolese spoils, particularly the trade in Congolese diamonds Rwanda and Uganda are running, ostensibly to finance their war against Mr. Kabila.

Rwandan officials say they often approached Museveni in Uganda to discuss the removal of Kazini, whom they see as the root of their problems.

Observers say that Museveni's failure to act suggests that he, too, had become resentful of his former protgs, whom he sees as having come too far for their own good.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society